THE GREAT RISE is a short story I wrote for the Owl Canyon Press Winter 2018 Hackathon Contest. My story placed in the 24 Finalists, and was published in the anthology 27 Stories in 2019.
It’s a quirky, fantasy world tale about life, death, irreverency, hope, and the lack thereof, inspired predominantly by Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.
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Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!
The letters—as crimson as fresh blood from one angle, copper-brown like dried blood from another—had always been there in one hue or another. The enormity of the single word was near-overwhelming, looming over the surrounding scraps and vestiges of heavy hearted human regard. The town of Buffleton was filled with them. Photos of lost loved ones. Crumpled notes of melancholic thoughts, stuffed into coffee cans meant for donations. And yet, if one looked closer, one would see that the tiny, complex details within the surface of the wall—written in red and scribbled in gold—belied the word’s monolithic presence. Rejoice! The intricate details ranged from fine brush work to thick stabs of muted color. All of it added irony to the larger message: these were names of each and every citizen of Buffleton who had died. And how each one of them met their end.
From Alwyn EmberStone (natural causes) to Remi FrostBorne (lost at sea). From Tobias Brownbranch (eaten by goblins) to Her Highness Jaelynn Dew Rider (medical complications related to goblin bite). From the clumsy Bumper Marshburn (electrocution) to the brave Owl-Phoenix PhoenixBone (bee sting) to even the unfortunate Sir Ludwig FireScribe (bicycle accident).
On and on it went. Every moment that ended in tragedy was plastered to the surface of the wall; on what was known as The Great Rise. On and on. Were these meant as warning signs for the poor people of Buffleton? Lessons in the dangers that might present themselves to anyone at any time? A statement on the fragility of living? The trouble with goblins? Well, it was all of that. And none of that. On and on and on.
In all the annals of history, folklore, and wisdom, the word “hero” is not a word to be tossed about lightly. But for the sake of this tale of The Great Rise, young Jonathon Morningmist, by default, might be considered as such. To Jonathon, the wall was an enemy. It was a thief, having stolen his father from him years before. As his father would explain it—and just as all of Buffleton would carefully explain to every curious child—on the other side of that painted concrete wall was a whole other land. To even the most hopeful, it seemed virtually unattainable, like another universe entirely. The official belief, as Jonathon’s father first illustrated with his son on his knee, was that upon the grass on the other side there were no shrines. No candles or wilted flowers or stuffed bears. No names scribbled onto the surface of The Great Rise. Because there was one more thing that did not exist on the other side: death. There was no death by natural causes over there. No accidents. No goblins. There was only the possibility of ever more life and happiness. Ever more wonder and journeys of discovery. And always more love. A bottomless well overflowing with love. Jonathon Morningmist was both in awe of and afraid of this possibility.
But no one knew for certain what was over there. Over time, there had been a few who hopped the wall. Against town orders, they chose to leave everything in Buffleton behind in favor of the Forever-Life. They just wanted to know. They were so curious that they were willing to forget lovers, friends, and neighbors. Leaving vacant their blacksmith shops, janitorial supply stores, sushi bars, and generations old, family-run plumbing and heating businesses. Even young sons who once sat upon knees listening to fairy tales and legends of caution were abandoned with little more regard than day-old goldfish. All of the makings of these admittedly moderate lives were coldly, categorically dismissed in favor of what might be discovered beyond The Great Rise. For these were only ever temporary desires anyway, weren’t they? The hope for something more, shrouded by the unknown—that was the more powerful siren call, wasn’t it?
And yet, as the story goes, any and all who ever crossed over were never to be seen again. For whatever reason—whether it was the verisimilitude of the Forever-Life, or maybe something better, perhaps something worse—they never returned to the more hopeless and the less brave who continued to wait, and who continued to write ever more names on the wall.
Young Jonathon Morningmist did not know what to believe, only that his father chose hopping The Great Rise over the life he had in Buffleton. So Jonathon did not know much about heroes. He was just a kid—exactly as his father always called him: “a kid”—who wished for a day when the flames of hope might flicker. And one day they did, when a particularly curious wanderer found his way back to Buffleton again.
Jonathon had just finished his shift at Ye Olde Espresso, his aunt’s coffee shop, where he’d spent the majority of his day serving mintberry tea and cleaning the washrooms. Jonathon was not a terribly happy kid; he hadn’t felt much happiness since his father decided to make a spectacle of himself, catapulting over The Great Rise and disappearing forever. Unhappiness was not so uncommon a feeling around these parts, even for the majority of kids who hadn’t watched their fathers launch themselves into the unknown via a creaky contraption they’d cobbled together in their sheds the night before.
Truthfully, most kids were like Jonathon Morningmist. For one, they disliked school, because there was nothing worth learning at school that could possibly ever get them out of, and as far away as possible from Buffleton. To add further layers to their melancholy, there were a few more factors at play: boys were in love with girls and girls were in love with boys and all sorts of children were in love with all sorts of other children, but every last one of them was unable to show it. Also, the weather was always terrible in Buffleton, and no one is happy in terrible weather. Not to mention: there really wasn’t much in the way of hope for the children, since the grown-ups only ever seemed to care about what was or wasn’t on the other side of The Great Rise. Grown-ups, it seemed, were weak and afraid of everything. All of them. And all kids would become them eventually. And what is there about being weak and afraid that might ever be appealing enough to make a kid wish to become one of them? Better to simply make coffee but pour tea and be lonely until your aunt’s cafe is your cafe and you’re left with nothing but fleeting ruminations regarding what could have been had you not been so weak and afraid to be something better. And on and on it went.
On his way home, Jonathon Morningmist walked upon the crumbling sidewalk which ran alongside The Great Rise. Jonathon brushed his smooth, youthful hand along the rough bumps of the wall’s weathered concrete surface; generations of paint slapped on, layer after layer after layer. On and on and on.
Jonathon had just reached an aged, crooked telephone pole when he stopped. There was a new shrine that wasn’t there that morning, painted rocks were still drying. It appeared as though Finnigan Hambone met his demise sometime that afternoon (cause of death still unreported). Jonathon had heard distant sirens earlier and wondered who they might have been for.
It was then, as Jonathon contemplated the details of what might have taken Finnigan Hambone away, that Jonathon looked up. And it was as he looked up, that he spotted a pair of hands at the top of the wall; fingers from the other side, clutching the rim of The Great Rise. Jonathon gave his head a good hard shake, for no one had ever seen hands on the wall before. Never. It shouldn’t have been possible.
But those hands were definitely there. “Hello up there!” Jonathon called. The fingers were more gray than his own, but they were definitely human so the fear of another goblin attack was probably out of the question. For now, at least. “Hello?” he called again, perhaps with more emphasis on self-concern this time. After all, one never could know when one could definitively rule out another goblin attack. The fingers quivered a little; enough to make Jonathon quiver himself, and he stepped backward onto the road without even noticing. Then the fingers disappeared, sliding slowly from sight like slugs and snails might travel over a hilltop. And with that Jonathon shrugged to himself, believing the vision had to have been brought on by still-lingering death fumes in the air, and he stepped back up onto the sidewalk, and continued on his way.
To say something about his sheer indifference, Jonathon Morningmist had merely made it to the next twisted telephone pole by the time the whole occurrence was out of his mind; those gray fingers had slipped from his memory far swifter than they had from the wall. But Jonathon stopped immediately upon hearing a voice calling from behind him. He shook his head again, this time trying to recall what he’d seen mere moments before. “You, down there!” the voice called to the kid. It was a man’s voice. “Might you give me a hand?”
Jonathon turned. “Me?” he asked, and pointed limply at his heart. As though there had been any creatures around besides himself, a few scuttling sluice-newts, and piles of crusty, mud-soaked stuffed bears. Then he saw the fingers again, up on the cusp of the wall. The best he could do was continue to stare blankly, and while he was already at his most incompetent, Jonathon went ahead and gave his slipping pants a bit of a tug.
“Nevermind,” the man said, struggling to keep himself aloft. “I—I’ve got this.” Then, with every bit of strength he could muster, the man heaved himself up and onto the top of the wall. He sat down and wiped his brow with a cloth he’d plucked magically from his pants pocket. “Boy, you really aren’t very good help, are you? I’m not the man I used to be, but looks like I still got it. Don’t I? Not that you would know what it was I had before what it is I’ve got now.” This man, even from Jonathon Morningmist’s point of view ten feet below, was slight. His bare arms were taut and sinewy, but overall he was certainly small, like a branch that had fallen months ago and begun withering. He wore a vest, torn pants, a belt with many pockets, and no shoes. Jonathon found it difficult to not stare at the man’s gray feet and blackened toenails.
“Who are you?” the kid asked the man on The Great Rise. “And what brings you to Buffleton?” A good question, since not only had there never been a single soul who had ever crossed The Great Rise from the other side, but no soul had ever willingly come to Buffleton before now.
The stranger laughed an impish laugh. The kind of cackle that clattered unsatisfyingly off of everywhere and nowhere at once. “What you mean to ask is: What brings me back to Buffleton?” Jonathon wasn’t sure if that was what he’d intended to ask, so he chose to say nothing more instead. The man stood back up and stretched his wiry arms out wide. “I am Doyle Finncaster! Rejoice! I’m back!” Jonathon could not even be bothered to shake his head in transience. “You don’t know the name Doyle Finncaster? I owned the auto shop on Blocker Street!”
The auto shop on Blocker Street had been vacant for years, before finally being razed and replaced by yet another paint store. But Jonathon didn’t mention any of that. He asked, “So what brings you back to Buffleton? And is anyone else coming back with you? And also, why are you so gray?”
“Well, you see. As it turns out, I forgot my wrench. Did you know there’s no such thing as wrenches over there?” With a traveler’s thumb, Doyle Finncaster pointed behind him, back over to the other side of The Great Rise. “I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without a wrench.” The man scratched at his scalp for a few long seconds, then inspected his hands, first the fronts, then the backs, and then the fronts again. “And what do you mean I’m gray?”
“Your skin—” The grayness reminded Jonathon of the eldest mountain range or the freshest of ash. The shadow of a dark rain cloud or the brackish marshes in Buffleton Valley. “You appear to be…well. You look like an old tea bag. Are you certain no one else is coming back with you?”
Doyle just shrugged. He observed the ground below him, scanning the heaps of mementos and shrines. It was not long before his eyebrows jumped. “Well, what do you know. Boy, do you see that shiny object over there?” At the foot of the telephone pole and partially hidden beneath a cardboard poster with the picture of a woman who had recently been eaten by goblins, someone had left behind an open toolbox. Jonathon crouched to look, though he could not identify any of the tools within. “The contraption that looks like the anticipative claw of a hungry crab-bear. That’s a wrench! Toss it up here, would you?” With an unsure arm, Jonathon miraculously launched the tool upwards and into the slight gray hands of Doyle Finncaster. “You may seem a bit angsty and angry, but you’re not so unhelpful after all. Enjoy the rest of your walk, kid.” And with that, Doyle Finncaster leapt off the wall, disappearing back into the waiting, curious land of the Forever-Life.
Angry? Jonathon Morningmist did not know he was angry, just as Doyle Finncaster did not seem to realize he was gray. Sure, he was unhappy that his father left him. And he was unhappy that he couldn’t seem to admit his feelings toward Gisele Cloudskimmer, the toothiest girl in his class. And he was unhappy about the angle of the sun on most days. But angry? The kid thought about the whole peculiar exchange that had just transpired. He thought about it a bit harder than he usually thought about anything, for he knew the chances of its details fading from his mind were very good, and he did not wish to forget them. So he continued to think all night, and all the way into the next morning when he suddenly—and most surprisingly—had a plan: that he would be the next resident of Buffleton to cross over The Great Rise. If Jonathon’s feelings were becoming muddled, then maybe there would be answers on the other side. And like his father did before him, he sounded the town gong in the middle of the Square the next morning, and made certain a crowd would be there to witness his bravery. And there was a crowd indeed.
The kid got up onto a milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the crowd and then it fell silent, except for a few people shouting words of encouragement at him. The kid acknowledged them with a nod and a shy smile. In the full light of day, he looked less angry and more beautiful. He waited until people stopped shouting. A siren could be heard, maybe five or ten blocks away. The kid raised the bullhorn, pressed the button, and began to speak.
He started, “Yesterday—”, and then realized the junky bullhorn he’d scavenged from the garage wasn’t working. But he continued to speak into it nevertheless. “Yesterday, a gray man named Doyle Finncaster appeared over The Great Rise, like a neighbor might stick his head over the fence, and he asked me for a wrench.” Some of the oldest amongst the crowd muttered and whispered, recalling the name immediately, for Finncaster’s auto shop was not only reputable for great service, but also offered a complimentary mug of mintberry tea with every visit. “So I tossed him a wrench and then he simply disappeared again. Just like my father disappeared many years ago. And like people you’ve all loved have disappeared from your own lives. Even though the wall tells us to celebrate. Rejoice!”
“Rejoice!” the people repeated, as was Buffleton custom. Even Gisele Cloudskimmer, the object of Jonathon’s affections, was calling out amidst the crowd. And maybe it was just Jonathon’s imagination, but Gisele appeared incredibly invested in what he had to say.
Jonathon bumbled a little, but he would not be deterred from delivering his somewhat awkward and poorly-planned speech. “Rejoice? Why are we meant to take delight in their leaving? Living forever sounds like a terrible bit of burden, don’t you think? What do you imagine they find when they get there? Do they ever get where they think they’re going? Do they ever find what it was they hoped to find?” He thought about the possibilities of what he could say next and how he might say it. What words would hit Gisele Cloudskimmer just right, so he might catch that wonderful, toothy smile of hers? “Do they ever think of the people of Buffleton? Do they miss us? Doyle Finncaster missed his wrench—enough to come back for it—and yet no one has ever come back for us. No one has ever really been a hero.”
Jonathon paused; a hope in the front of his mind that someone in the crowd would ask if he might be that hero. If he would cross over the wall for the good folks of Buffleton, rather than escaping in the middle of the night like so many cowards, launching themselves from crudely constructed catapults. Aside from fear, what was stopping him from treading into the Forever-Life? But no one asked these questions. They were too afraid to ask. Maybe it wasn’t heroism, but Gisele Cloudskimmer seemed impressed nevertheless. And to prove it, there was that smile of hers.
Then, someone did call out from the tense crowd. He said, “So what are you going to do, Ditch-Nut?” Hmph. I am going to cross The Great Rise, Jonathon thought to himself in his most bravest of inside voices. I will be the hero you all need. Another asked, “Will you bring them more wrenches?” Jonathon shook his head. Still another worried, “If you’re not here, then there’s one less person for the goblins to eat before they eat me. I don’t like those odds!” Jonathon shrugged his shoulders.
The interim Mayor of Buffleton—who was only in power until next Tuesday, when the body of the late Queen Dew Rider would be ceremoniously sent down the slough into the waiting maw of ocean-wolves and her successor would then be plucked from a lottery system held at the bingo hall (the caste system in Buffleton was nightmarishly complicated)—was there with his royal entourage. He had a working bullhorn, and he himself asked, “Son of Morningmist, are you saying you spoke with Doyle Finncaster?” Jonathon nodded. “He just popped up over The Great Rise and asked for a wrench?” Jonathon nodded at this, too. “He didn’t say anything about my car, did he? It’s long due for a fuel injection cleaning, and once you find a mechanic you trust, it’s terribly hard to change!” It seemed Jonathon was all out of nods. The town didn’t care, or they were too scared to endorse or reinforce his decision. Even his aunt — who was initially at the forefront of the crowd—was silent at the very back. Did anyone in Buffleton have any encouragement at all for him? Did—
“When do you leave, Jonathon Morningmist?” It was Gisele. “When does your hero’s journey commence?” More sirens clamoured off in the distance; nearly everyone scattered so they could do a head count in order to find who was missing this time. Jonathon and Gisele remained amid the chaos. The two of them locked eyes, as if each was just now noticing that the other had noticed all along.
Jonathon motioned behind him. “Just as soon as I cross this wall,” he said. The Great Rise had felt so imposing before, now it seemed as though he could simply hop over it. Alas, even on the single milk crate, he still couldn’t reach the top. “Looks like I may need a boost, however.” Jonathon held out a hand for Gisele to take and she ambled closer. “I do have but one request of you, after I cross over.” Gisele cocked her head a little in anticipation of his inquiry. Jonathon patted the wall and said, “When I’m gone, please do not add my name to The Great Rise. Because I plan on coming back.”
From the milk crate to Gisele’s surprisingly sturdy shoulders, the kid lifted himself to the top of the wall. He had some difficulty balancing, but managed to stand on his two awkward feet. Bisecting the two lands, Jonathon could see the town of Buffleton behind him—Gisele Cloudskimmer below him—but he could not see anything before him but thick vegetation on the other side. With a deep gulp and a big breath, Jonathon Morningmist leapt off, eventually landing into the plushy palm of some still-dewey, exotic shrub.
Planting his feet in the unknown dirt, Jonathon immediately saw the other side of the wall, covered in thick fingers of ivy and other similar vines; some blooming flowers of fuschia, cerulean, and ivory; others full of prickly though harmless-looking spines. Every spine and thorn on every plant in Buffleton looked like it would kill someone instantly. And though everything on the other side was as green as the greenest of poster paints made from the freshest of harvested mountainside joonee fruits, Jonathon did stop for a moment and wondered if there might be any beaches over here. He’d always wanted to see a beach, feel the ocean breeze, and smell the surf. He may have even had dreams of taking Gisele Cloudskimmer there one day.
When considering if she might enjoy that dream too, he turned back to the wall and called out for her. “Gisele!” he called, but was answered by silence. “Gisele Cloudskimmer!” he yelled louder. But there was no answer. Already he was having misgivings about crossing over. Should he turn back now? He asked himself aloud: “Did I just make a grave mistake?”
This time he expected silence as an answer. But then, a woman’s words startled him: “Of course ye made a mistake, ye bloated fool!” The words were spit from some knee-high bush. Its leaves rattled harshly, though none came dislodged. But Jonathon did not even step back. He actually leaned in and dipped his face of burgeoning courage even closer to the foliage.
The leaves parted in a kind of indescribable exoticism, like a magician might reveal some sleight of hand, uncovering what Jonathon could only describe as: “A goblin!?” Indeed, this scraggly woman was merely knee-high; her skin a green-gray sort of worn leather; her mouth a toothless cavern of echoing, virulent hisses.
“Nay!” she yelped. “I’d have eaten ye whole t’were I a goblin!” Jonathon wasn’t sure how that would have worked exactly—the eating-him-whole bit—considering how much bigger than her the kid was. “I crossed that wall, just like ye! Buffleton gave me the ol’ scaly hoof too, be knowin’ it.” She scuttled closer, seemingly unafraid of this new traveler in her midst. Jonathon steeled himself, determined to remain fearless. One of her eyes twitched so fervently it almost appeared shut. “Name’s Barbara. Barbo, I calls meself here. Use’ta teach kids like ye—smaller kids, mind ye—over in Buffleton.” Barbo spit into the dirt so hard some grubs wriggled loose from the earth. “Teacher?! Shoulda owned the paint supply store on account fer all the coats there’ve been put on that blasted wall. Wouldst have made a killin’. And then…well, then I go and find meself here.” She seemed to transform from indignant to dispirited faster than Jonathon could process. “Well?”
“Well, indeed.” Jonathon confirmed, though he was not certain what it was she was welling about. With hands in his pockets, the kid caught sight of a glint of something within a patch of long grass. It was a wrench. But this wasn’t the same wrench that Doyle Finncaster had brought back over the wall with him the day before. No, his wrench was an adjustable wrench and this was most definitely of the socket variety. Jonathon wondered if this was the woman’s home, here in the overgrown but wonderfully alive vegetation. He wondered if she realized that he was not a bloated giant, but she was likely just a shrunken, grayed version of her old self. He wondered many things. But instead, he asked Barbo: “You have wrenches here?”
Barbo tried to spot where the kid was eyeing, but she could not see anything of the sort. “Wrenches? Everyone perceives this cursed land differently. Be it the size of interlopers or the stink of a gringemeat sandwich. Some folks think they’ve come here to live, whilst others only remain for the hope of death. Some fools see wrenches, some don’t. But surely ye have better questions than this?”
Jonathon Morningmist thought about the perceptions of others. And a little bit about his own. He did not know if the wrench even mattered or why Doyle Finncaster must have stuck his head over The Great Rise in the first place. He did not care to wonder why the denizens of this side of the wall were apparently shrinking, nor did he have a clue what gringemeat was. In fact, for the moment, he was not even concerned about Gisele Cloudskimmer. Instead he asked: “Have you seen my father?” And he took a moment to try to recall the man from memory. “He had one eye of green and another of a color I could never place. He had arms like the mountains in fables. He had a beard so virile and thick it took him four days to shave and one day for it to grow back. He was a wonderful man but a terrible dad, and he hastily shot himself over The Great Rise from a catapult without even a word. His name was Morningmist.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar. But everyone perceives this cursed land differently,” Barbo repeated. She plucked two grubs from the dirt and swallowed one whole, offering the other to the kid. “Would ye care? Methinks they taste like the pit of arm, but ye might find they taste like fancies.”
Jonathon declined the grub, and Barbo gulped it down. Thoughts of what might be found on the other side kept firing through his mind; crissing and crossing like dozens of zapper bugs in a jar under the moon. How far could his father have gotten on his journey? Perhaps it’s true: that those on this side don’t know death. But are they shrinking and shriveling into crazed goblin-folk and discolored wrench-hunters instead? Do they regret their choices in coming here? Do they ever miss the good people of Buffleton? “I have one question for you, Barbo. Do people here live forever?”
“Tis true we know not of death. But that don’t mean we don’t ever hope to meet her.” Barbo looked skyward; through the overlapping leaves and fronds and stalks and folioles, there remained a pinhole of sky above. She took it in, as though it were sustenance far, far more nourishing than a handful of grubs or gringemeat sandwiches. “Still, ye decided to come here too. But ye have yet to decide if ye be staying.”
It was then that Jonathon Morningmist first concerned himself with what must be the truth. “Once I’ve decided to stay there is no return, is there? This is why no one has ever crossed The Great Rise and come back to Buffleton?”
“Some decisions are our own. Some are not. But rejoice in the decision ye shall make, son of Morningmist. And I will rejoice for ye. But make it soon.” Barbo shuffled back into the vegetation, soon fully faded from both sight and memory. Perceptions of what is, what was, and what might have been, were indeed very much skewed in the land of the Forever-Life.
Jonathon stepped further into the foliage, though he stopped himself before he felt it was too far, or far too late to turn back. Somehow he knew he would know when. There was a luring call from the vegetation; what it was saying, Jonathon could not tell.
Turning back to The Great Rise, he now realized the ivy for what it was. The distance from it proved to be important, for he could not have read the message from any closer: the ivy and vines grew together, forming the words “Never Is Forever.” On and on and on.
Taking hold of the sturdy branch of a mossy and scaly-barked tree, the kid heaved himself upwards. He held tight; the branch seemed to pulse in his grip, like it had a heart of its own. Perhaps regrets of its own as well, if that was even a possibility. Likely it was. He carefully maneuvered along the trusty tree arm, before finally stepping off and returning to the top of The Great Rise. He could still see Buffleton there, but Gisele’s whereabouts were cloudy. He sensed the worry and fear within the town, but also, he could simultaneously sense the misgivings and wantings within the green land of the Forever-Life. And just as a hero would do, Jonathon Morningmist made his decision.